The Politics of Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-end)

The Politics of Scripture

Last week I sat supping tea, on a glorious summer’s day, in a garden with one of my favourite people in the world. My friend raised one of those questions about women as bishops which is not usually part of the narrative (certainly among those of us who treat this matter as urgent): Why on earth do women want to be bishops anyway? Her question was not prompted by any anxiety about women’s ministry or place within the church. Rather her question was prompted by concern about how bishops are ‘seen’ in the C of E, that is, about how clergy and laity behave around bishops.

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary.Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Sometimes life is good. Last week I sat supping tea, on a glorious summer’s day, in a garden with one of my favourite people in the world. She also happens to be one of the finest feminist theologians in the UK. And coming, as this meeting did, just after the Church of England’s General Synod, conversation turned, almost inevitably, to the question of women becoming bishops. For once again the C of E has begun the process to enable women to become bishops. And my friend raised one of those questions about women as bishops which is not usually part of the narrative (certainly among those of us who treat this matter as urgent): Why on earth do women want to be bishops anyway? Her question was not prompted by any anxiety about women’s ministry or place within the church. Rather her question was prompted by concern about how bishops are ‘seen’ in the C of E, that is, about how clergy and laity behave around bishops. She suggested that the C of E is afflicted, when it comes to bishops, with ‘extreme unctuousness’ (my phrase). For if we in England no longer quite live in the world of Barsetshire there remain the traces of class and authority in our church and affection for privilege which have always scarred the English Mind. Why, my friend asked, would women want to buy into that world where clergy and laity crawl about beneath their episcopal betters and serve up endless politeness and deference?

The concerns outlined above may seem a galaxy away from the world revealed in today’s reading from Luke. If women have always been stalked by patriarchy’s love of particular readings of the Two Marys – Magdalene and Mary, sinner and saint, the lascivious and the virtuous – and continue to negotiate the ensuing violence, perhaps Martha and Mary draw closely up behind. This weekend countless preachers will confidently – and understandably – talk about Martha and Mary as signifying two paths, perhaps two vocations. They will become spiritual ciphers, symbols of ‘attentiveness’ to God’s Word (Mary) or excessive focus on human busyness (Martha). Clearly this spiritualization of the women is made possible within the text, indeed is authorized in the voice of Jesus who seems to come down heavily on the side of Mary: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.’ And – in contexts where most people’s basic needs are met and there is a kind of society-legitimated obsession with busyness – there is something appealing about this generalized, spiritual reading of the text

If they are not made to stand ‘for us all’, symbolically Mary and Martha can be made to represent two kinds of female compliance. Martha represents the common lot of women. She is the inescapability of domestic action, indeed the woman who has so internalized patriarchy’s assigned role for her that she is angry when her sister doesn’t play that part too. We are right to note that the text ‘undermines’ this character’s self-understanding, for Jesus (as authority figure) suggests that Mary has chosen the better part. But it is not clear that Mary has stepped outside female compliance. Yes, she steps outside the standard narrative, yet her place is, in a sense, no more active. She is the Devoted One, the one who listens and remains silent while the man – in this case, the Great Man – speaks. She even sits at the great man’s feet. Ironically, it is the Domesticated One who is more active in one sense at least. She moves and acts within her admittedly constrained sphere; she even ventures to question Jesus. Her gesture of anger and frustration is at least a gesture! No wonder there have been feminist writers who have sought to redeem the domestic from patriarchal assumptions, who have sought to discover the honour and power of the ordinary.

Perhaps we cannot hope to unearth a telling of Martha and Mary grounded in actual lives; their stories have been too subsumed into the prophetic work of the gospels. Yet they remain a salutary reminder to those of us conscious of how readily women’s lives are erased by both foundational texts and in religious praxis, of the importance of taking context, the living particulars of human living (that is, politics), seriously. The move to spiritualize (i.e. generalize) the gestures of Martha and Mary as either virtues or vices is appealing, yet readily becomes apologies for the status quo. To put it crudely, to use Mary to say, ‘See, be still and know God’ or ‘Be devoted to the Master’ can become an apologetic for a second-rate quietism which never challenges existing authority. As both a trans person and a woman I know only too viscerally how much that is a counsel of foolishness. Being still can so readily become a version of accepting one’s place. It is all very well making ‘stillness’ or ‘devotion’ or ‘quietness’ a devotional virtue, but if you have never been taught how to be noisy, take up public space, or own a fulsome sense of one’s own identity it can be abusive and disastrous.

Thus, we return to the C of E’s situation regarding women as bishops in the Church of England. It is clear – given our failure last November to get legislation through General Synod (admittedly by the thinnest margin) – that we in the C of E have got ourselves in a bit of a mess over women and the episcopacy. There is overwhelming support in the church for women to be bishops. The vast majority want this to happen in the simplest manner, ensuring that it is beyond peradventure that women and men exercise Episcopal ministry equally. A new process was initiated at the most recent meeting of General Synod which seeks to take that support seriously. Any number of things will have to happen if this legislation is to make its way through Synod by 2015. One factor, less obvious, can be derived from clear thinking about a passage like that about Martha and Mary: if women are ever properly to be bishops or treated as the kind of people who rightly and appropriately exercise authority in the church we must not simply be seen as ciphers or a cause or read through patriarchy’s categories. Women are no more to be comprehended in terms of their so-called complementary ‘reproductive’ role as their presumed capacity for devotion. It is stating the obvious (and yet even in 2013 one still feels one needs to state it) that women are as diverse, complex and resistant to reduction to stereotypes as men.

My feminist theologian friend asks a significant question. Episcopacy in England remains inured to a system based on patronage and state religion. It remains unclear how, in due course, those individual women called to be bishops will both reformulate and exercise authority. In England this is a particularly pressured task precisely because Episcopal ministry here continues to offer the questionable appeals of Establishment – hanging out with the great and the good, the dream of influence and so on. One hopes that those who have experienced the sometimes systemic effects of patriarchal stereotyping and control will bring a renewed commitment to those who have most often been patriarchy and power’s abiding victims. Equally one hopes that the clergy and laity who support them resist the lazy and unctuous practices that so often are demonstrated today. The pressures on women in public life – to look good, behave ‘well’ (whatever that means!) – are myriad. The first women bishops in the C of E will face an extraordinary and terrible time. I pray they exercise ministry with a character that sees patriarchy’s wiles for what they are. I pray they smash up the rules and the stereotypes for the idols they are.

One thought on “The Politics of Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-end)

  1. Excellent post, thank you. As someone preaching on Martha and Mary tomorrow morning, this is certainly food for thought. I think it’s possible to hold up Mary as an example of spiritual discipline without simultaneously proposing that “quietness” is a virtue, but in order to do that I think you’re right that we need to clearly put forward the need for action alongside that example. Often it feels that being called to silence is actually a burden among other burdens – not only do we have to be busy women, but we need to make space to be quiet as well. How many hours in the day do we need?! It’s a little like the reality of working mothers – that women can be both mothers and work, but more often than not it simply means they have to cram all the burdens of both those things into one life. The result – the sacrifice of personal life and time. For women, sacrifice as a virtue is a problematic concept in a patriarchal world.

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